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The Real Life of a Zamboni Driver

Posted on October 28, 2013 by Scott Huntington

Last November I was working at a poorly managed tractor dealership that was running out of work. Instead of laying me off, they put me “On Call,” with no intention to call me back. So, after a game at the local rink, I was hanging out with the rink manager and asked “you guys hiring?” fully expecting him to say no. Instead, he replied, “Sure, you wanna drive the Zamboni?”

Zamboni

DO I WANT TO DRIVE THE ZAMBONI???? I could barely stutter out a “yes,” hardly believing my good luck. It was like being handed the keys to my dad’s classic Mustang. Every kid wants to ride/drive the Zamboni when they grow up. There’s something inherently cool about that machine. It is completely unique to hockey, and has an aura of hockey legacy that surrounds it. The mythical Zam driver (those of us in the business call it a “Zam…”) is like the wise old sage of the rink, like Hans in the Mighty Ducks (I know he sharpened skates, but no ones dreams of doing that.). Excited kids press their noses to the glass to watch as the Zamboni lays that smooth sheet of glass like a calm shimmering pond. Fans fill out little lottery cards for their chance to ride the Zam at a pro hockey game. And recently, I’ve found that lots of people have driving or riding one on their “bucket list.”

Zam2

But in reality, its a thankless job. You’re always the killjoy who has to kick people off the ice earlier than they want. You’re also the jerk who takes too long to cut the ice, taking away precious minutes of ice time. Basically, I end up being a glorified lifeguard/janitor making just above minimum wage.

The Zamboni is a complex machine that requires much attention, and constantly tries to ruin your day, and the ice you’re resurfacing. It is a front-steer vehicle with a very long wheelbase. On top of that, you sit behind the rear wheels, and off to the side of a giant tank that collects the ice shavings. I’m not exaggerating when I say this thing is about 50% blind spots. There are a lot of levers and buttons to push as well, and they are all important.

The Conditioner, which is the part that houses the blade, skims the ice and shaves off the snow and a thin layer underneath, is the workhorse of the Zamboni, and it does all the important things (other than forward motion). You can control the depth of the cut, which can be fickle, and you always run the risk of cutting too deep, and either making the ice too thin, or filling your tank too soon. Air and ice temperature, as well as humidity, are an ongoing battle for the Zam driver.

The snow is removed by a horizontal and vertical Auger, which will jam if they are not kept clear. They can be cleared by using the jam bar, which breaks up congealed ice and snow to allow it to travel up the vertical auger. The wash water and pump water are also controlled by the operator, and are vastly important. To prevent a buildup of ice along the end boards from constantly making turns in those areas, the driver turns the water on and off. If you forget to turn it back on again, or if the Zamboni stops or runs out of fuel, the conditioner could get stuck to the ice, and then you’ll have to get the shovels out, and endure the wrath of skaters missing ice time. Nothing is worse than running out of fuel.

Zam1

Most of my evening is spent shoveling snow, replacing fuel tanks, yelling at public skaters to be safe, yelling at hockey kids to stop stealing/breaking things, listening to every beer-league all-star complain about how the ice could be better, finding pucks, filling holes that figure skaters kick, and finding a match for the one shin pad some U-16 kid left at home.

But every now and then, as the Mite team lines the glass with wide eyes of excitement, or the kids from the birthday party squeal with glee, you’re the coolest guy on earth.

…and then you have to mop the barf from the hallway.

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. He’s co-creator and admin of the hockey group Soft Dump. Follow Scott at @SMHuntington


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